Just before the release of 2007’s Era Vulgaris, Uncut’s Jaan Uhelzski headed out to California to see if head wrangler Josh Homme could keep the party going when the group’s hedonistic regulars had been barred…
“The Queens Of The Stone Age is like a whorehouse,” leers Josh Homme, before taking a final swig of the Mexican beer he’s cradling in extraordinarily large hands. “I think that’s what it’s like for people who play with Queens – they don’t tell their own band members how great it was.”
We are sat in Homme’s new studio, a squat cement building half a mile from the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Here, it seems the imposing 6″ 5′ redhead is intent on pursuing his bordello theme. Rolls of flocked wallpaper sit on a scaffold ready to be slapped on the white walls, while a claw-footed bathtub has been upholstered in red velvet and now functions as a tarty-looking day bed. “When they’re with us,” he continues, “they just pretend that they’re here just to fuck. Not fall in love.”
A lot of people have played around with Queens Of The Stone Age since their inception in 1997. To borrow Homme’s metaphor, it’s a pretty classy whorehouse. Dave Grohl sat in on drums for 2002’s masterful epic of desert rock, Songs For The Deaf. Mark Lanegan has often come along for the ride. Julian Casablancas, Trent Reznor and Billy Gibbons were all involved in the sessions for the band’s forthcoming fifth album, Era Vulgaris. Homme, though, is the only one to have lasted the whole trip – even his childhood friend and second-in-command Nick Oliveri was thrown out for terrible misdemeanours in 2004.
This is not a place for sentimental lingering. Grohl, in fact, was so enamoured with being a Queen that he put the Foo Fighters on hold for an entire year so he could tour with them. Intimates say that Homme had to convince him to go back to the Foos. “Josh had problems trying to deal with that, but he knew that Grohl still had a lot to do with his own band, so he set him free,” reveals a source close to the band.
“Dave Grohl is an alpha sort of person, he’s fucking badass,” says Homme. “It was good to see him gnash his teeth because it’s good to see him work, and leap, get pissed and get ready to bronco.”
Even in adversity, Homme seems to be the kind of ruthless commander who inspires affection in his charges. Lanegan, for instance, swears he’d work again with Homme, despite a parting of the ways in 2005, when the enigmatic singer went missing eight days before the close of a tour. “That was my fault,” Lanegan says simply. “I had some personal problems I had to take care of. I had to step away. But Josh has always been very, very supportive of whatever I’ve wanted to do and very helpful whenever I’ve had difficulties and I just love the guy to death. Queens is my favourite band and Josh is one of my favourite guys. If the opportunity arose again, I would certainly work with him. He always gets the best out of me.”
In the past decade, Queens Of The Stone Age have represented the very best in rock’n’roll: the sex, the drugs, the adventure, the delirious sense that nearly anything goes. In that time, Homme has mined some of rock’s most dangerous seams, channelling the dirty vision of The Stooges, the howling darkness of Nirvana, the bombast and comic sauciness of ZZ Top, the doomsday visions of Blue Öyster Cult, even the catharsis of early Metallica. Myths have sprung up around much of what Homme does – with the ad-hoc experimental cabal the Desert Sessions and boogie tarts the Eagles Of Death Metal, as well as the Queens – ever since he started making music as a teenager on the dry sand of California’s Palm Desert, a two-hour drive from LA. It was there that his first band Kyuss, stoner rock pioneers, plugged their instruments into portable generators and played only for the coyotes and the scorpions.
Josh Homme, it transpires, is from one of the more affluent families in Palm Desert. His grandfather Cap Homme has a park named after him in an exclusive enclave in Coachella Valley, where retired movie stars, former American presidents and Microsoft’s Bill Gates all live. There’s a Homme Street where the family ranch used to be located – now the location of the very posh Monterey Country Club, 375 acres of luxury homes tucked underneath the shadow of the Santa Rosa Mountains.
Homme’s family is important to him. Besides the bordello tat, his studio bears their mark: the colourful neo-classic furniture borrowed from their desert home; the art on the wall – two dozen or so elegant landscapes, stark portraiture of Native Americans, and Gauguin-inspired vases of flowers all painted by his paternal grandmother, Camille Homme. It’s her name that he has tattooed over the knuckles of his right hand, while on the left is his grandfather Cap’s name – a far cry from the self-aggrandising O-Z-Z-Y, or the P-U-N-X that Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong has etched on his left hand.
“I didn’t grow up as a rich kid,” he protests, squirming a little. “I grew up in an 800-square foot condominium. Money doesn’t mean anything in itself, it’s just a way to keep people off of you, or keep yourself free, keep your options open. But it’s hardly something to stack or think about. Although maybe it looks cool stacked.
“My grandpa used to do new clichés. ‘If you could be the sheep or the shepherd, which one would you be? The wolf.’ And another one was, ‘If you’re going to be different, you’re going to get hit by rocks, so learn to like rock.'”
This is what Josh Homme has done – learned to like rock – since those early parties in the desert with Kyuss. “The first time I saw them play in the desert, with a couple of generators, a few halogen lights and a couple hundred teenagers slamming against each other, I thought I had stumbled onto the Plains Indians doing a war dance,” remembers Chris Goss, producer of two Queens Of The Stone Age albums. “They were better than Black Sabbath, with the intellect of Led Zeppelin. I knew they couldn’t miss.”
Kyuss, however, didn’t last long enough to capitalise on the stoner rock phenomenon that they had initiated. “I will never put them back together,” says Homme now, 12 years after the split. “We’ve already got offered stupid stupid money, and I just said, ‘Keep your chequebook in your pants.’ I actually love that no-one ever saw Kyuss.”
Homme briefly turned his back on music, going to college in Seattle. But he soon fell in with one of grunge’s most psychedelic, dysfunctional and best bands, Screaming Trees, joining them as a touring guitarist in 1996. An enduring friendship with the Trees’ lead singer, Mark Lanegan, would eventually produce some of Homme’s best work, and the guitarist Van Conner featured on some early sessions. But when Queens Of The Stone Age’s eponymous first album appeared in 1998, the band consisted of Homme and Kyuss’ last drummer, Alfredo Hernandez, with sizeable contributions from Goss – who had come up with the name; “I liked the idea of something that was 50 per cent stupid and 50 per cent gay,” he remembers.
The first album’s mix of Sabbath heaviosity and driving motorik rhythms was striking, but it wasn’t until 2000’s Rated R that Queens sloped into the mainstream. Hernandez had gone, and Homme’s new second-in-command was bassist Nick Oliveri, who had figured in the first Kyuss lineup. Oliveri contributed his own deranged hardcore songs, but it was his personality – naked, wayward, demonically fucked-up – that seemed to embody the band’s guilt-free partying agenda. “Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol/C-C-C-Cocaine,” went the chorus to “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer”, and suddenly the Queens were seen as lords of misrule as much as rock innovators.
Homme and Oliveri seemed inseparable blood brothers. But as they toured the blockbusting Songs For The Deaf round and round the world, it became apparent that Oliveri was spiralling too far out of control for even a liberal taskmaster like Homme. In 2004, he went round to Oliveri’s house and told him it was over – rumours persist that it was because the bassist was physically abusing his girlfriend. Oliveri thought the band were disbanding. A week later, he discovered that Homme, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and drummer Joey Castillo were recording their fourth album, Lullabies To Paralyze. “So you fired me for what you hired me for?” complained Oliveri in 2004.
“I think I always expected to part ways with Nick because it was inevitable,” Homme sighs today. “I’m glad it lasted as long as it did. But I realised that I had helped something come out in him that should have stayed inside. I learned that it’s not a requirement to bring stray dogs into your life. You don’t have to save everybody, and you can’t. You work first, then party later.”
The sacking of Oliveri coincided with another major shift in Josh Homme’s life. He had just met Brody Dalle, lead singer of the Distillers and often portrayed as an embryonic Courtney Love, who was then extricating herself from a failing marriage to Rancid singer Tim Armstrong.
“My mother always told me I would just know when the right person came along, but it hadn’t happened,” says Homme, with uncharacteristic candour. “I was 29 and I was beginning to think it never would. I was a bit of a slut, to be honest. I was always here today, gone tomorrow, but when I met Brody I was like I’m here today and I’m coming back tomorrow. We had to be very secretive, because she was just starting a divorce process. I went back to do those Desert Sessions [Homme’s free-floating musical collective], and you can tell what I was going through because I was writing stuff like “Dead In Love” and “I Wanna Make It Wit Chu” [revisited on Era Vulgaris]. I was so in love, I was totally revelling in it so much, I was a little paralysed.”
Homme and Dalle now have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Camille. But if it seems as if Homme has mellowed somewhat in his private life, the fifth Queens Of The Stone Age album proves he can still find aggression and psychedelic disorientation to channel into his music. He still likes being able to confound his intimates. For Era Vulgaris, Homme took the latest Queens lineup – still built around Castillo and Van Leeuwen – into a Los Angeles studio without a single thing written, just to see what it was like to force songs out of his psyche. “I’ve seen him do that before with the Desert Sessions but never with Queens,” says Chris Goss, who produced the album. “The Queens Of The Stone Age is a business, where he’s the CEO. It’s not run the same.”
After 11 months of harrowing trials and studio mishaps, they ended up with one of their most important musical documents. Dubbed after Aleister Crowley’s system of signifying the period after he became a full-on Satanist, it’s a tour de force that combines the blurry power of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti with the punch of The Stones’ Some Girls, all underpinned with stripper beats and whacked-out English psychedelia.
“I love this album, but I will never make another album this way again,” vows Homme. “Or at least I don’t think that I will. My goal is to make better and better albums that don’t suck and I don’t really care what I have to do to do it. In a perfect world, the idea is for each of the records to make you a better person. To be able to understand the life you lead more. The rest will just take care of itself.”